Category Archives: Sustainability and the Big picture

Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 2

In Part 1 of this essay, I began to examine Betsy Hartmann’s argument that population growth is not a serious problem, and that it distracts us from real problems of women’s rights, racism, and class bias. Assessing her critique of 1994’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, I touched on her arguments concerning poverty and environmental degradation. For neither does she readily accept population growth as playing an important causal role. I acknowledged her valid points, but disagreed with certain assertions, particularly concerning the environmental issue. Now let’s turn to the question of women’s issues and how they relate to population growth.

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Does a focus on population work against women’s rights?

Those who study population know there is a negative correlation between fertility rates and the provision of educational, work, and other opportunities for girls and women. (more…)

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Learning from Lester Brown

Lester Brown We can learn a lot from Lester Brown. By way of introduction, he is an environmentalist with some 50 books to his credit, including Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth and Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. He founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1989 United Nations Environment Prize.

In the video linked to below, he touches briefly on the relationship between the economy and the environment at its broadest level, an issue we’ve examined here before. (more…)

Population and consumption: both major players

Growing footprint Consider this a working paper of sorts. It adds to the last post here which discussed the relationship between population and consumption. But it’s only a snapshot of an initial bit of online and library research. I hope to flesh out the topic more fully in the future.

At the end of that post I mentioned two issues I had barely touched on, which deserved more attention. They were (a) the question of whether, even hypothetically, we could ignore population growth and count solely on advances in clean energy technologies to escape ecological catastrophe, and (b) the implications of the observation that over the last century global energy consumption has increased more than population numbers. In my view, the former question is the simpler one, and I’ll get to in the near future. In this post I’ll provide some of what I’ve found concerning the latter issue.

The consumption argument

It’s a common observation that, over the last half century or more, resource consumption rates have increased at a faster pace than population size. I’ve seen this observation used to support the view that population growth isn’t as serious an environmental problem as our growing rates of consumption. Sometimes a proponent of this argument presents data showing that the magnitude of growth of total world energy consumption, or of total consumption of a specific resource, is considerably larger than that of population. (more…)

An unholy matrimony

[The follow-up to this essay is found here.]

The chicken knows
“Overpopulation is a serious problem getting worse every year.”

“Overpopulation is a myth.”

“There is no population problem.”

“There’s overconsumption, … but not overpopulation.”

“[The problem is] overpopulation in the South and overconsumption in the North.”

That’s just a sampling of the kinds of conflicting statements about population growth you can find on the Web and elsewhere. Is it any wonder the topic confuses people? Readers here should have little doubt which of the first three views I share. I would suggest, as well, that statements dismissing the population issue are often disingenuous and politically motivated.

Good question

But what about about the population versus consumption question? (more…)

Economic “his-story” à la Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron in graffiti

Gil Scott-Heron on GIM? It makes sense. I was watching a brief video of GSH addressing how black history was rewritten to suit the dominant white culture in North America, and it struck me that it made an equally cutting commentary on aspects of Western economic history.

Of course, I also just thought it would be cool to get Gil on here. 🙂 He’s long been one of my favorite musicians, as much for his political commentary as for the excellence of his music. Along with long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, GSH built a unique and significant body of work. He is sometimes called, the “Godfather of rap,” for long before the advent of rap/hip-hop, his “soul jazz” songs were often interspersed with spoken word, poetry-based pieces, invariably expressing intensely felt social messages. The most famous, of course, was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

The piece in the video is an adaptation of “Black History of the World” from his album, Moving Target. It’s a snip from a a DVD called Black Wax, parts of which take place in a wax museum: (more…)

Economists can’t take (quite) all the blame

Suzuki In the previous article here, I reiterated a fundamental problem with mainstream economics. It fails to recognize that all economic activity is a part of, and as dependent on the ecosystem as any other aspect of human activity or the activities of other species. I urged mainstream economists not to let debates about the details of theory distract them from shifting their view to one in which the economy is viewed in its true relationship with nature. If they can do that, they can truly help to save the world by rethinking our approach to economic growth which, as it stands, is degrading the ecosystem and pushing us toward environmental collapse.

It’s not all the fault of the economists 🙂

But it’s not just mainstream economics which has lost sight of it’s connectedness to the ecosystem. The problem with economics is, in part, likely a reflection of a broader societal phenomenon. Recently, I came across a couple of David Suzuki articles which highlight the seriousness of the problem. (more…)

Can ecological economists save us from the mainstreamers?

Killing the earthMainstream economists are trying to kill us. They don’t think of it that way, but they should. The standard policies promoting endless economic growth of the conventional sort are destroying the ecosystem. And ecocide, should we follow through with it sufficiently, could easily mean the loss of many millions of human lives. When those economists promoting and shaping policy continue to push ecocidal policies when they could instead play a central role in protecting the ecosystem, how is that not homicide? [1] (more…)

The Texas argument

Texas is bigSome people deny the problem of population. They insist that neither the present world population size nor its continuing growth is a problem. Some of these folks are influenced by certain writers, often far to the right politically, and typically focused on mainstream economics, who espouse this sort of population denial. (We’ll look at some of those writers in the future.) Others are merely drawing conclusions from their everyday observations. From neither contingent have I seen a very substantive argument, but a common argument from the second group is especially silly.

Texas is great, but this is ridiculous

Usually, it goes something like this: “There’s no population problem. It’s a myth. You could fit every human being on earth inside the state of Texas with plenty of room for everyone.” You can see an example of this in comments on Anderson Cooper’s blog on the CNN site. (Search the page for the phrase “state of Texas” – without the quotes.) [1] (more…)

Removing vast forests

Deforestation is an ongoing, serious problem for many developing countries. It’s impact is global, however, as the loss of forests and the benefits they provide the ecosystem are felt.

In some parts of the world, local population growth is the major culprit. In the Amazon, while it is self evident that broader population growth creates demands which play an important role, locally most of the guilt goes to classic examples of conventional, unsustainable economic growth. Agricultural giant, Cargill, for example, has been a major player in the deforestation process.

In the Amazon it’s a vicious cycle, with humans clearing the rainforest, contributing to climate change, while climate change causes drying and fires which further destroy the rainforest. Here’s a brief video: (more…)

Did someone say, “steady state economy”?

EcoEconTo some extent, I’d like the early posts here to be sequential in laying out a case for the site’s basic arguments. But timely items from around the Web and elsewhere are part of the plan as well. With that in mind, I bumped into a piece on Alternet by Stephan Harding. It’s about the idea of implementing “Tradable Energy Quotas” (TEQs) as a way of promoting a “steady state economy.”

Previously, I’ve mentioned the importance of the idea of the steady state economy. Any thoughtful examination of the current pervasive growth imperative, leads to the conclusion that endless economic growth — with its growth in physical throughput — is unsustainable. Our ecosytem has limits. And such growth is leading quickly to its collapse. A move to a steady state economy would be a key step toward putting on the brakes and taking the ecosystem fully into account in our economic policies. (more…)

Al Bartlett exposes “the silent lie”

Al BartlettIn mainstream circles, serious acknowledgment of the problem of population growth has, for some years, been more or less taboo. Mentions are made, the occasional article appears, but extended, prominent discussion is rare. A case in point was a recent issue of Scientific American. Al Bartlett, one scientist who does raise the issue of population growth, and whom I mentioned in the previous entry here, reviewed it in the last issue of the The Physics Teacher. The review is now available online at Culture Change.

Conspicuous omission

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and former national president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, is one of my favorite thinkers on sustainability, population growth, and related issues. He’s been speaking on the topic of population and energy since 1969, and has written some of the clearest, most incisive articles you will find on sustainability-related topics. His review of the Scientific American issue is no exception. (more…)

How do they face their children?

Corporate profits versus the earthHaving touched on population growth in the last entry, it’s time for a quick look at how economic growth has become a serious threat to the global ecosystem. This is a large topic which has filled a good number of books. But on its most basic level its logic is simple. The key point is that neoclassical economics, the dominant economic model for much of recent history, is based in large part on an assumption that the economy, as a whole, can and should continue growing forever. A major part of such growth is its physical dimension, which is well reflected in increasing “throughput,” defined by Herman Daly as “the flow beginning with raw material inputs, followed by their conversion into commodities, and finally into waste products.” (p. 28 ) The neoclassical view promotes unending physical growth and throughput

The problem with forever

When confronted with the prospect of depleted natural resources as a result of ongoing growth, the neoclassical economist’s answer is that human capital in the form of technical innovation will always make up for lost natural capital (natural resources), or even that we will always find new ways to extract ever more resources. (An article by the late economist, Julian Simon, provides a particularly striking example of this thinking.) The flaw in this model is self evident. It fails to acknowledge that the earth and its resources, as well as its absorptive and regenerative capacities, are finite. Indeed, it contrasts sharply with the newer “ecological economics” model which starts from the assumption that the economy is a part of the finite ecosystem and so should strive to respect its limits, lest it damage it. (more…)

Welcome to Growth is Madness!

Our finite Earth from space.Our earth is in trouble. And that means we’re in trouble. It’s no exaggeration today to say we face a looming global ecological collapse. Scientists have warned us of this for more than a decade. The warnings, from individual experts, and organizations grow more urgent.

Yet, most people’s attention is on other news. There is little awareness of the gravity of the environmental problem we face and the likely consequences if it is not vigorously addressed.

There is even less awareness of the root causes of our environmental plight. This is not too surprising as their role in creating the problems we face has been suppressed by those with vested interests in shielding us from the truth.

Simple truth

Let’s start with some truth right now. The root causes of the ecological collapse of which scientists are warning are:

  1. Global population growth to levels beyond the earth’s carrying capacity for humans.
  2. Excessive and growing per capita resource consumption rates.
  3. Economic growth (the product of #1 and #2), as defined by Herman Daly, in the form of increased physical throughput, from the extraction of raw materials, through their manufacture into commodities, to their output as wastes.
  4. Our reliance on nonrenewable resources such as fossil energy.

Those four elements are of course closely linked, with one affecting another. It takes only simple thought experiments to recognize their impacts. Imagine, for instance, that there were only one quarter as many human beings on earth as there are today (about equal to the global population of 1900!). Clearly, there would be be far less environmental degradation. We could quibble over whether or not it would be exactly one quarter the current amount. (We might speculate that the variables listed should interact differently at different levels.) But the basic idea is clear. Think similarly about the other factors, and their importance comes to light.

Room for hope!

But before you close this site in dismay at what, up to here, seems a profoundly pessimistic message, I’ll point out there is room for much hope! Experts who study the global ecological problem are clear in their assessments (pdf) that there are effective actions we can take to avert disaster or, at the least, to soften the landing. It will take serious commitments from many nations, intergovernmental cooperation, corporate and individual efforts. Part of those efforts needs to be the spreading of accurate information to inspire others to help, whether they encourage their elected representatives to take action, or they take action themselves.

Enter GIM

Thus, I launch Growth is Madness! (GIM) to help fill a void I can hardly believe exists. Relative to other issues in the news, there is a terrible dearth of information, readily available to the public, on the nature and causes of the most important problem of our time, the global environmental crisis. As far as I know, this is the only weblog currently devoted expressly to addressing the fundamental causes of this crisis. [1] In this unique role, GIM will provide key information, investigating and elaborating on the ideas mentioned above, examining counterarguments, and more.

Because they are especially ignored by the mainstream press, the population and economic growth will figure prominently here. We will, however, touch as well on other relevant topics including peak oil, per capita consumption, the political and social factors driving the areas of growth in question, various ecological topics, and actions which might ameliorate the problem. We need much more awareness, after all, of the ecological “big picture.”

In a way, I wish someone else were doing this. Though trained as a social scientist in the “scientist-practitioner” model, my academic background is in psychology. Here, I’m forced to grapple with topics from the natural sciences, economics, sociology, and anthropology among other disciplines. Others would have immediately at hand more technical knowledge. But they’re not doing this.

Starting, then, with the information I’ve gathered, I’ll continue to research as I go. And I invite you to join me, to participate in the discussion under every entry. I’m more than willing, as well, to post guest articles relevant to the site.

Finally, to anyone reading GIM, I make this pledge: I’ll always make the effort to seek the truth, to back my arguments with sound logic, and to source my information well. In addition, I want readers to feel comfortable commenting here, to know I’ll reply civilly. On the other hand, I hope the title of this weblog makes clear that I won’t mince words when it comes to stating the truth as I see it about the topics I discuss. Growth really is madness.

Welcome to GIM!
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[1] Update: Greater familiarity with the available resources requires me now to qualify that statement. As a class, the sites which come closest to sharing the themes here are those focused on peak oil. While they specialize in oil depletion, often touching on related ecological issues such as population, GIM specializes in those other ecological issues, increasingly touching on peak oil.

Since writing this post, a small number of other blogs sharing GIM’s concerns have come online. Some appear in the blogroll here.

Also overlapping somewhat with GIM’s themes are a few sites which promote a return to primitivism. These folks, as well as some of those studying oil depletion, have concluded that, owing to the interactions of issues such as population overshoot and peak oil, society is headed for collapse and it’s too late to stop it. If current trends continue, I agree collapse is inevitable. I part with these analysts only in that I believe it’s premature to conclude there is no possibility we can change course soon enough and substantially enough to avert complete collapse. I would concede, though, there may be less time remaining to do so than most of us would like to believe.

Even if my assessment is too optimistic, it’s worth noting that even those convinced of the inevitability of collapse would agree there are a number of positive actions we can take now to soften the landing. Much of the content of GIM is consistent with that thought. We need to increase awareness to avert collapse, or at least to soften the landing.

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Updated: 8/24/07, 10/9/07
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